On the Rooftop, Waiting

The city panics. People run through the streets. They hide. The sun never rises in this city of ash. So much unsaid. Raindrops pound against the windshield; the stoplight another lonely Christmas through the prism glass. The cancer devours all, leaves nothing but hearts choked blue and black. The mobs climb stairs and gather on rooftops, waving torches and lighting beacons. Chaos in the snarl of avenues below. The cars roil and swell through the streets like a boiling river. Their eyes to the sky, searching for helicopters that never come.

But in that sprawling mass, would a single slipped gear be noticed? A moment of hesitation where synapses fuse and chances are missed, where doors are shut, never to be opened again. Would it be fatal, this malfunction? Would it birth a spark, an electrical rat set free to chew through cables and shit corrosion on the couplings?

Would it breed, this rat, this failure?

Christmas with Janelle

Christmas was what settled it. Over my years of dating I’d learned a thing or two about gift selection during the holidays, the first of which was to never, ever buy your girlfriend electronics. Exceptions can now be made for all things Apple, of course, but in my experience, women do not want to unwrap a gift on Christmas morning to find a new home theater receiver. The second rule: no perfume. Buying perfume was the easy way out. All a man had to do was look on his girlfriend/wife/sex worker’s dresser and find the bottle, write down the name, and drive ten minutes to the mall. While the gift itself might be appreciated, in her heart, she would be disappointed that her boyfriend/husband/john couldn’t even bother to use a little imagination, dig further past the surface, find a gift that said, “I know who you are inside and I value your presence in my life! See?”

One year, I’d bought Heather tickets to see Wicked at the Oriental. Heather loved musicals, and she loved Edina Medzel, who starred in the production. It was a good gift; we had a great night. But here I was, two years later and dating a different girl entirely, standing in the bathroom trying to figure out who made the fragrance bottle in my hand. This, after giving my current girlfriend the other half of her Christmas present two days early – a transmitter so she could listen to her iPod over her car stereo. In my defense, she’d be leaving town for Philly in a few days and would be driving for hours at a time, but whatever. I had broken my own rules and I knew it, and it sickened me to think that, for all my supposed creativity, I couldn’t manage to come up with a better gift than a miniscule bottle of scented alcohol and a plastic gadget that plugged into a cigarette lighter.

Summer Is Coming

Leaving the chalk white waste of the Alkali Flats for the twisting downshift of Lake Tahoe, nearly forty-eight hours on the road. Arizona desert in winter; a vacant web of train tracks, scraping frost from the windshield. In Brooklyn, John and I steer clear of the ranting bum outside the subway. The man shouts and spits, he howls like a kettle set to boil. The fog rolls in over Ocean Beach, hard packed sand chilly and wet. A wall solid as brick, so bleak it shatters the heart. Shitty beer for shitty Texans, an ever-declining series of motel rooms. L.A. Sunset Strip, the Standard, The Viper Room. “River Phoenix died here,” you say, and you stand there, dumb. Tunnels and bridges, a blur of faces. All the nation’s airports, the oceans stretch out endless. The Da Nang tunnels. Bullet-ridden helmets hang from trees, rusting in the humid climate of the Vietnamese jungle.

I’d have traded them all for her Murakamis, for the buzzing air conditioner that did no good, for an apartment floor that was never clean. All of it for another day at the beach with her, joint tucked away inside her bag, daring each other to dip heads beneath water.

“That makes me happy,” she said, and we both wanted to believe it.

Twenty-Nine Palms and a Suicide Girl

I drove to see Mona down in Twentynine Palms, some eight hours south of my home in San Francisco. The town seemed to be nothing more than a freeway running through the desert, a scattering of lonely motel swimming pools and palm trees. She was in SoCal for a Suicide Girls shoot, and had decided to take a brief holiday in the sun. She called, and I got someone to cover my shift that day, giving me just enough time to drive down, spend the night, and come back. It had been a lonely year, though, and I could use whatever distraction I could get.

Mona was tough — all jet black hair and Johnny Cash, though she held Jeff Tweedy closer to her heart. She had winged, angelic rats tattooed across her chest, wore librarian’s glasses, and had been a committed vegan for the last several years. I’d met her at a barbecue back home a few months before, and we’d spent the night making out in a corner closet, while Rufus, her ratty, charcoal-colored dog, growled at me from the across the room. She’d adopted Rufus on a whim during one cross-country trek or another. He looked like he’d lived through a zombie apocalypse. The two of them were inseparable, sitting side by side in her dusty green station wagon as she drove the freeways from one shoot to another. “Flying lacks the tactile,” she had said. “There’s nothing of nature to smell, there’s no wind, no breeze, and you can’t touch anything except plastic and polyester. Better to drive where I can roll down the windows and sweat in the wind like a human being.”

It was nearly ten at night when I found her motel. It was a clichéd desert oasis hidden among a thicket of palms. The gravel was hard-packed into the parking lot. Rufus started barking when I was still some thirty yards from her room, a sort of pueblo cabin. Mona opened the door before I knocked, and threw her arms around me in a loose and easy hug. That’s a funny thing about distance — the further you’ve traveled to see someone, the bigger the hug at the finish line. You don’t fly across the world for a handshake. “We’ve got to go to the store,” she said. “I’ve been hand-making margaritas, but I’m almost out of tequila.” She clapped a straw cowboy hat to her head, called Rufus, and a moment later the three of us were in her car, heading to the AM/PM. He watched me from her lap and growled low in his throat.

We pulled into the parking lot, cracked the windows for the dog, and went inside. She said she didn’t like to leave him alone for very long. I turned my head and watched as Rufus ricocheted around the car’s interior, yapping and pawing at the glass. His breath and spit smeared on the windows. I said nothing. Mona found the liquor and we stood in line behind a half dozen other people with bottles of booze in hand. Perhaps in Twentynine Palms there was nothing better to do on a random autumn Tuesday save for getting drunk and staring at the stars. Mona pointed out the holes in my jeans. “Those are pretty cool. You make them yourself, or did they come that way?”

“They’re real,” I told her. “Each and every one. When I bought them they were dark, almost midnight blue.” The jeans were faded and pale, chalky.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s really cool.” I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not.

We sat outside her motel room under the clearest sky I’d ever seen. She brought out her acoustic and asked me to play it. I declined, but said maybe later. And while I can remember every phone call I made on the eight hour trip down from the Bay, every pit stop at every shitty gas station, even what I ate (a twenty piece of Chicken McNuggets with Spicy Mustard at one, a foot-long roast beef sandwich from Subway at another), I can’t remember anything else about that night with Mona, not a thing about those few hours talking in the desert. Nothing, save for her story about a guy she used to date.

“He was funny,” she said, “and charming and in a band, an all-around good guy. We laughed a lot and had really good chemistry.” I waited for her to say something about charkas or spiritual alignment, but she didn’t. “But he was also sad a lot of the time, and he drank because of it. And if he wasn’t drinking he was sad, but sometimes he was sad even when he was drinking, and this seemed to be happening more and more of the time. He drank. He was miserable. There was no consoling him. And I was in love with this person who was completely incapable of being happy.” Her eyes watched me, firelight dancing on her glasses. “Do you know how irritating it is to be around someone who’s depressed all the time?”

“Pretty irritating, I can imagine,” I said, not that I had to. As far as I was concerned, I’d been suffering from depression for the last twenty seven years, and had experience on the matter. The fact that I was down in Twentynine Palms with her to begin with just proved the point. I finished my third pint-size margarita of the night and waited for her to continue. “So I left him. Who could blame me? Some people think the glass is half-full, some people think it’s half-empty, but with him the glass was half-empty and cracked, and water was draining all over the floor. I couldn’t be around that sort of negativity. I’m alive. I feel the sun; it makes me grow just like a flower. Because if you tie yourself to a drowning person, you get pulled under yourself.”

She took a drag off her cigarette. Rufus, now silent, watched me with half-shut eyes from where he laid with his head on her feet. We laid in bed together, both shirtless, but I did not kiss her, and instead found myself watching the morning lighten. Even through the window, the sky was titanic.

I woke with my hand cupping her breast. I jerked back and nearly jumped out of bed, mumbling an apology as I pulled on my jeans. She shrugged it off. After taking turns in the bathroom (noting that every personal care product that she owned seemed to be of either organic or vegan origin), she tugged her hat low over her eyes again, leashed Rufus outside the hut, and we wandered to the hotel lobby. I washed down aspirin with lukewarm, coffee-flavored water and a muffin of such density that I could lob it though a windshield. Mona dug around in her bag and produced hand-tied tea bags. “Chai,” she said, tilting her hat back on her head. She had really bad posture, I noticed, and her shoulders slumped. In the light, her skin seemed doughy and unhealthy. I thought back to last night, already slipping like sand from my memory. We’d been laying in bed and I had done nothing. I wondered why I had bothered to drive down in the first place. Barely a word between us, we walked out to my car, a burgundy sedan resting beneath a high-up palm. “Yours?” she asked.

“A rental,” I said, and just as I unlocked the door she kissed me, her lips warm and wet against mine.

“The world doesn’t always have to be this heavy,” she said. “This serious.” I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. She smiled and adjusted her glasses on her nose. “Well, I’m glad you came down,” she said, and we hugged once more. Rufus was barking in the distance. I watched her walk back to her hut. She was a skinny girl in a cowboy hat, still pale white even after days in the southern California sun. I drove home thinking of her ex-boyfriend and his sadness, how she couldn’t take it. Thinking of her lips on mine, how she had tasted of peppermint and baking soda, something all natural, I’m assuming.

Autumn

Autumn’s arrival is always a bittersweet thing, as there is menace within those scarlets and golds and vermillions. The colors blossom the way skin flushes before death. Autumn feels more wretched than Winter because it’s the point just before, that moment in time where the outcome seems to teeter on the tightrope of chance. We carry hope that the encroaching cold can be pushed back one more week. It’s that feeling late Sunday afternoon when you realize that you have to go to bed and get up in the morning because tomorrow is fucking Monday and work calls, work calls, work calls. The closer it is to midnight, the more you want to just crawl up and die. We lament Sunday, as Sunday is a messenger bearing bad news. Autumn is the same way – it’d be the perfect season if not for the fact that Winter is waiting around the corner, waiting to make every outdoor moment of your life a nightmare. Autumn is the pretty house on the hill, hobbled by its proximity to Winter, the boarded-up hovel next door. Empty and bitter and dark. Living in Autumn means that Winter’s miserable shadow is always in your yard, there is no escaping it.

I suppose I just wanted to see Summer one last time, a last hurrah before the temperatures drop. The winds will become icy knives soon, and things like bikinis, sunscreen, and picnic baskets will seem so distant as to be hallucinations. I wanted to see it because no one goes to the beach in October, at least not in swimwear, they don’t. And it will still be pretty, but it will be different. It will be gray and stark, and the sky won’t hold relief in its breezes. The spray of the waves a cold slap against skin and eyes; the water an old friend turned hostile.

One last time to see Lake Michigan, even it’s just to say goodbye. The same way we say goodbye to the Christmas tree before we haul it down the stairs in a shower of sharp brown needles. We’ll wrap ourselves in thermal underwear and thick socks, cumbersome coats and scarves. We’ll step out into the brutal Chicago winter; we’ll stomp the snow off our boots upon returning, wiping snot from dripping noses. Frantic dashes from the shower, chattering bodies wrapped in terry cloth robes. Sweatpants and t-shirts under heavy flannel sheets, and I’ll dream of breezes from open windows and our naked bodies pressed tight beneath the linen.